Yesterday, EA released the epically hyped Battlefield 3 after months of heavy advertising and a PR battle with existing king of the hill Call of Duty. The hype train leading up to its release was inevitable given the competition from the CoD franchise and its stranglehold on the current console FPS market. And though I was a serious fan of past Call of Duty games, Battlefield 3 makes not only CoD, but all other video games look like toddler toys.
First the easy stuff: Last night, EA was having a ton of trouble with their XBox servers. People weren’t able to play online, so I played the first two missions of the single player. It’s fine. It’s absolutely beautiful but, as the game designers said in an interview a few weeks ago, it’s a tutorial for the multiplayer. It’s pretty dull. I read a review of the single player in which the reviewer said that he kept dying until he figured out exactly what he was supposed to be doing. That’s spot on. There are a lot of sudden attacks/explosions that you just need to be in the proper position for. If you’re not, you die and have to try again from a different position. This gameplay is not what anyone cares about and I’d be surprised if I even finish the single player mode.
As for the multiplayer, the graphics are similarly unparalleled. There is no video game currently on the market (maybe the Forza series) that has graphics anywhere near as beautiful as these. There’s so much detail and subtlety that you can spend entire matches just looking at stuff. The “backgrounds” (about those scare quotes in a second) are stunning. On Operation Firestorm, there are plumes of black smoke rising in the background from bombed out oil refineries. At Caspian Border, there’s a forest fire in the background that looks to engulf the entire map. But you could find something in almost every level to marvel at. There’s no point in listing them all.
The reason I put scare quotes around “backgrounds” is because these levels are basically limitless. The larger, more open levels allow players to use jets, which move so quickly that you’ll often overshoot the level by about 100% (at Caspian Border, you can actually fly through the forest fire that is otherwise unreachable). When you’re in the sky, the levels take on a life of their own. That said, flying is extremely difficult. Any videos of someone successfully flying are really impressive. It’s very, very difficult and often ended with me crossing myself up and nose diving into the ground.
Referring to the levels as limitless may be a misnomer, but in practice they are. The game mode I played the most last night was Conquest. In Conquest, there are either three or four bases/flags that you need to capture and protect. There are essentially two ways to go about this*: get in a tank and follow your teammates to a base that can be locked down, or sneak around the entire edge of the level and try and pick off a base that people don’t expect you to attack. The latter, even in Call of Duty, has always been my preferred option, but I digress. These levels are built to scale and I would guess that running directly from one end of the level to the other unabated would take about four minutes. If you hide for cover and take the game more seriously, it takes close to eight minutes to get from one side to the other. But if you do it properly, you’ll move cover to cover, lay in wait as enemy tanks rumble by, find shelter to hide from enemy planes that might spot you, and avoid enemy contact for the majority of the time. It’s a singular experience unlike any other in gaming.
It’s the pacing of this game that makes it so perfect. When there aren’t any new vehicles at your spawn, it might be a hassle to run for 30 seconds to a minute before even seeing a firefight in the distance, but that’s what gives the game it’s reality. These maps truly feel like war zones. They’re so large that you can be attacked from almost anywhere if you’re not careful. So when you really immerse yourself in the game–checking your cover, supplying cover fire, and methodically moving through the level using front and follow with teammates–it feels real.
It’s cinematic in a way that I never thought imaginable. You feel like you’re in a movie. There are these indescribable moments of jaw-dropping brilliance that just open up to you. So many times, things happen exactly like you would expect they would in real life and it’s something that no other video game has ever accomplished (eg, spotting an enemy tank a few yards away before it spots you and laying prone for cover until it passes).
My most memorable experienced occurred as I was bringing a tank into the heart of a city scape. An enemy jet spotted me and made two swooping passes over my vehicle, unloading on the tank and doing a ton of damage. After the second pass, I realized that I had an aircraft-locking rocket launcher. I got out of the tank and hid by the side of it for cover. I watched as the jet made a swooping turn out in front of me and came back for a third run right over the top of the tank. I locked onto the jet and fired just before it got to me, and watched it explode and crash into the ground right over my head.
Though the size of the levels was initially a problem for me, it soon because the game’s most impressive feature. The same levels on the PC are made for 64 players simultaneously. On consoles, you only play with 24. While the game has made its name on mixed ops (using different classes and vehicles in tandem to dominate positions), freelancing on your own is a heart-pounding experience. There’s nothing worse that hiding out sniping down range when you hear an enemy tank roll up with infantry forces and you’re forced to take cover until its gone and then check the surrounding areas for anyone who might surprise you.
It hit me today why this game, and FPS in general, will be/are so popular. For most gamers, autonomy is key. This is what development companies like Bethesda thrive on and why open-world games have become so popular. But the more functionality you offer people, the more limiting it becomes (eg, Why does Townsperson X always say the same thing? Why can’t I blow up this building? etc). If you give gamers free reign and call something a sandbox game, they will inevitably push those limits and question why they exist.
FPS are unique because they are designed to allow the player to perform any action that he might need to in the existing situation. You’re out of ammo and need to pull out a pistol? There’s one available. Like that dead guy’s gun better? You can take it. But there were clear limitations. For example, if you’re getting shot by a sniper hiding out in a building up the street, the best you could do was hope to shoot him before he saw you. Battlefield 3‘s Frostbite engine gives you another option, the kind of option you would logically use in that scenario: explode the sniper’s cover with a rocket launcher. The game allows you to interact with the environment in every way you can imagine. And the size and scope of the levels puts you in a real world setting where logical strategies apply.
In my many years playing video games, I can confidently say that Battlefield 3‘s multiplayer is the greatest gaming experience I’ve ever encountered. The breadth of landscape, abilities, vehicles, strategies, and game modes combined with the game’s physics engine and solid gunplay create the most realistic digital experience to date. If this isn’t the Uncanny Valley, it doesn’t exist.
*There’s a third that I’m not very good at, and it involves teaming up with another friendly jet and having both people circle a base. It’s really cool watching these things swoop in and out to protect a base. I only saw it happen once and it was against my team, but it was spectacular to watch.